Female guerrilla fighters in Colombia are banned from getting pregnant – but if they do they are forced to give up their babies. Now, after thousands of women have left the armed groups, some are desperately looking for their children.
“From the bottom of my heart, I beg you to put yourselves in my place. I did not give up my daughter. They took her from me,” says Teresa, who demobilised from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the Farc – five years ago.
“I was 16 years old, they forced me to. How would I confront the Farc all by myself to prevent them from taking my daughter if not even a whole army is able to [defeat them]?”
When she was a child, the Farc killed Teresa’s mother and forced her to join them. Before long she became pregnant.
This was considered an insubordination and a crime, she explains, and in many cases women are forced to have abortions. But in her case it was already too late.
A few weeks after giving birth to a baby girl, her commanders forced her to sign a document to hand over her child to a family they knew of. The baby was taken away.
But after demobilising, Teresa started looking for her daughter and found her. She is now in the middle of a legal battle for the right to share the child with the family who raised her.
“They have put many obstacles in my way to stop me from seeing her,” she says.
One official has told her she has no right to her daughter “because what kind of example can I be to her with my subversive thinking”.
But Teresa says she will not give up.
Across Colombia there are many women in a similar position – especially as now, according to the authorities, more and more rebels are deserting from the left-wing rebel groups that have been fighting the government for half a century.
According to their figures, more than 56,000 people have walked out of illegal armed groups in the last 11 years, among them almost 7,000 women.
Maria, petite and feminine, is not the stereotypical ex-guerrilla. Recruited by the Farc at 13, she got pregnant four years later.
Find out more
Teresa, Maria and Carmen tell their stories in Colombia’s Lost Children on the BBC World Service on Tuesday 5 August at 03:32 GMT
“The first thing I thought when I realised that I was pregnant was that obviously I would have to have an abortion,” she says.
“I asked God not to let it happen. To be honest, I wanted to have her. I had this feeling of happiness when I found out I was expecting a baby. That was what motivated me to hide my pregnancy.
“I hid it up to the seventh month because by then it was already showing. Then I told them I was pregnant. They said it was too risky to have an abortion because I could die, and they allowed me to give birth to the baby.
“There had been cases where a woman was forced to have an abortion in the seventh or eighth month… Many women had died like that.”
She was allowed to spend three months with her baby, but then the inevitable happened.
“That memory is always in my mind. The commander told us we had to give her away, that we had no more time, that we had to get rid of her any way we could.”
Maria is almost in tears as she remembers giving the baby to her partner, to give to a local woman.
“I waited for him at a distance, I couldn’t go there. I cried for four days. It was very difficult. But taking the baby and deserting wasn’t an option.”
After eight years with the Farc, Maria decided to escape. She’s been looking for her daughter ever since, but believes she is in an area the rebels still control – beyond her reach.
“I’m still looking for her. And I will carry on until I find her or I realise there’s no hope. But I still have hope,” she says.
“I’ve spoken to the woman who raised my daughter… and I asked her to let me see her, spend some time with her. I promised I wouldn’t try to take her away. And at the beginning she said, ‘Yes’. But then she stopped answering my calls, she disappeared.”
Colombian officials say they have heard of cases where children taken from their mothers were killed. But even when this did not happen, the search for the child tends to be complicated by the length of the separation.
Women often do not know where to start searching.
It’s in the government’s interests to help mothers locate their children, though, as this may help spur others to quit. It makes efforts to gather information from former members of the Farc, and the other main left-wing rebel group, the ELN.
Carmen, a nurse with the Farc for more than 20 years, left the group in 2008, and started looking for the son that she had given birth to 22 years earlier. She was finally reunited with him in 2010.
It was as if I had given birth to him once again. I felt immensely happy that day”
When she got pregnant for the first time, pregnancies were still allowed in the organisation. But keeping the baby was impossible. “You can’t be in the field with children – they are the ones who suffer most,” she says.
Commanders allowed her to keep the baby for 40 days. After that, she and her partner, another Farc member, gave him to a family they knew in a nearby village.
Carmen was then able to visit him every few months, until he was three years old. Then she was transferred to a different area and lost contact.
But with the help of a government programme for demobilised guerrilla members, Carmen broadcast a message over the radio to the area where she guessed her son was living. This message got through to him, and a meeting was set up.
“It was as if I had given birth to him once again. I felt immensely happy that day,” Carmen says.
“I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening, or at least that he accepted me. One of my biggest worries was that he would never accept me, that he would reject me.”
But her son didn’t reject her. Carmen told me that she had asked the family that raised him never to make a secret of who his parents were, and why they had to leave him.
“We just hugged and cried for a while,” her son remembers. “After that we started to talk a bit and told each other how happy we were. She told me how happy she was for having found me, and asked me to forgive her.
“I told her there was nothing to forgive, that I was thankful for what they had done for me and that I understood why they had done it… I don’t bear any grudges.”
The mothers’ names have been changed to protect their identities.